Nobody's home

September 06, 2004

TO THEIR CREDIT, Baltimore city housing crews have found a way to frustrate squatters who pry their way into abandoned houses: a double truck of plywood secured with special screws and glue. But it took them a year to clear out a backlog of 2,300 requests for such action.

That gives you an idea of how widespread the problem of vacant houses is.

Property owners' negligence contributes mightily to the use of these houses as drug dens and havens for vagrants; their failure to maintain their properties or board them up violates city housing codes. And the city pays the price - in time, money and blighted neighborhoods.

At the very least, the city should require property owners to doubly seal windows and doors in vacant houses to better secure them in the manner of city work crews. It also should impose harsher fines and penalties on negligent owners in order to recoup the city's cost of boarding up vacant homes and to deter repeat offenses.

But often the city has trouble identifying and locating an owner because he or she has abandoned the property or died, or the house is registered to a defunct corporation. To combat that problem, the city housing agency has created a special team of investigators to do nothing but track down owners. Rather than throwing up their hands, housing officials have adopted an aggressive, targeted approach that should speed up enforcement actions.

That's the kind of creative thinking needed to get at an intractable problem.

If housing inspectors can find and cite these derelict property owners for code violations, they can exact fines of up to $500 a day if owners don't comply with a violation notice.

The problem of vacant houses has been a scourge on Baltimore for decades. There are at least 14,000 now. They are magnets for vagrants, drug dealers, rodents and trash. They are a never-ending source of public complaints that consume thousands of municipal manpower hours. Consider this: There remains a backlog of 8,000 requests for the city to clean trash and debris from vacant properties.

It's a backlog that Baltimore housing officials don't expect to be able to clear - for another year, at least.

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